Route 301

A Report From The Dark Side Of Mars

Three a.m. in August of 1962, on US 301, still two-lane, through rural Virginia. The night was humid with vapor from the nearby Potomac River. Bugs shrieked and keened in the woods, like bearings that needed lubrication. Gus's Esso glowed in the night, brash and red as a Budweiser sign. Route 301 was still the freight route to Florida. Interstate 95 had not yet gone through Fredericksburg, stealing the long-haul north-south traffic and killing businesses on the highway.

After midnight, traffic was mostly big trucks. They roared past the dark forest, roadside trash blowing in the blast, tires whining as mournful as lost dogs. Miles away, they coughed, downshifted, gathered themselves to blatt their way up the grade to Edge Hill. Hour after hour they sailed by.

The country boys worked shifts in the county's gas stations, six days a week at seventy-five cents an hour. For the most part we were wiry, slightly crazy, with bad complexions and the empty minds of thirteenth-century peasants. At night we worked alone. Crime had not yet engulfed America. For a stripling of sixteen it was a big feeling. The big roads at night were not a kid's world. We liked that

I'd sit in the office, door open, and listen to the radio or just to the silence. Outside, above the fluorescent lights of the pump islands, insects swirled and jittered. The forest brooded dark around. Once a green luna moth landed on the outside of the plate glass. It was about the size of Batman. I walked over and peered into bulging dark eyes inches away. A bug like that can make you think the world is stranger than they tell us, with maybe more to it.

It was another time and a smaller world. The Sixties hadn't started. We kids lived in rural isolation, knowing nothing of the growing tumult in the Middle East, of which we had never heard, or of the coming war in Asia, where some of us would die, or anything beyond the bounds of King George County. Drugs didn't exist. There were as many malls in the county as there were Bactrian camels. We knew only what we saw, what we did—the woods, creeks, fishing, crabbing on the river, guns, sock hops, innocent attempts at lechery and, especially, cars.

In a dispersed land, with people living in remote farms and tiny towns, some of them not even wide spots on the roads, cars were important. We lived and dreamed them, craved the forged pistons we couldn't afford, the milled heads and magneto ignition. A boy automatically cataloged cars that streamed by on the highway: fitty-six Fly-mouth, '48 Chev, ba-a-ad-ass 61 ‘Vette, exotic confections like a Studebaker Avanti.

It was funny how a kid could bond to his car almost as he might to a favorite pooch. Your mosheen was part of who you were. Butch wasn't Butch. He was, for all time in memory, Butch of the '53 Ford painted white with barn paint. When you parked in some deserted lane in the darkness of Saturday night, you had a fond appreciation for what your crumbling rust bucket could do, such as, usually, start.

A gas station was a natural home for us.

You learned funny things: where the gas cap was on every car ever made. (Try a fitty-six Chevy.) Mostly it was just "Fillerup? Check y'awl?" squeegee the windshield, maybe trans fluid, tires. Self-service stations were in the future. People were courteous.

In the late hours a seriousness fell over the highway. At four a.m. we got travelers who meant it, running on caffeine and maybe no choice, faces blank with a dozen hours on the road. They'd slow from a steady eighty—past midnight the cops were sparse and didn't care anyway—get fuel, hit the rest rooms, and blow on out in five minutes. At the pumps the mufflers ticked and creaked as they cooled and there was sometimes a momentary camaraderie between people out in the lonely night when nobody with sense was. I've felt the same thing on the bridge of a carrier on a late watch.

Strange things happened. Others were said to have happened. A tall skinny senior we called Gopher worked shift at Gus's. Gopher was a bright but odd country kid with a perpetually puzzled expression. You had a feeling he wasn't always sure where he was. Being immensely tall and wearing a Norfolk and Western cap, he looked like a lighthouse disguised as a railroad engineer.

One day (I was told, and hope it is true) a woman pulled up to the island in a Corvair—a car, now extinct, that was shaped like a bar of soap and low to the ground. The car was as short as Gopher was tall. From altitude Gopher asked, "Can I help you, Ma'am?

"Do you have a rest room?"

The distance was too great. Gopher thought she had said, "Whisk broom," and responded, "No, Ma'am, but we could blow it out for you with the air hose." In the resulting turmoil, Gopher had no idea why she was yelling at him.

The roads were a course in humanity. We picked up a jack-leg sociology that, later, years of thumbing the continent would verify. The better the car, the worse the people in it. Owners of Cadillacs were awful snots, but people in old pickups would go out of their way for you. That sounds too cute, but it's true. Cadillacs didn't impress us anyway. There was just something wrong with those people. Now if they'd had a huge Chrysler hemi with pistons like buckets and cross-bolted bearing journals….

One night a smoking, rattling wreck of a former school bus pulled in. Migrant workers. Fabric showed on the tires. They were going north to harvest some crop or other. They were not Latinos, as we had not yet opened the southern border. I could tell they were down on their luck. They were ragged, wore bandannas and crumbling jeans, and just looked tired. Two dollars gas. The driver politely asked if they could use the rest room as if he thought I might say no.

I gave them a couple of quarts of used oil. More correctly, reprocessed oil. Kids didn't steal from their employers as they do now, and it was the only time I did it, but, well, those folk needed oil, and they didn't have money. It was thirty-five cents a can.

A different place.